The following is a rough first draft of the beginning of Peter Quinones' upcoming (2016) book Catch The Nearest Way: Fragmentary Writings on The Macbeth Experience. This material Copyright 2014 by Peter Quinones.
Virginia Woolf, according to Jonathan Bate in The Genius of Shakespeare, opined that “the truest account of reading Shakespeare would be not to write a book with a beginning, middle, and end; but to collect notes without trying to make them consistent.” This is very wise advice, and I will try to be faithful to the spirit of it here.
Also: having come upon the excellent thesis of aspectuality as presented by Professor Bate, again in The Genius of Shakespeare, one feels a bit more relaxed about questioning the apparent opinion of his Bradleyness, Charles Lamb, and many others that Shakespeare is for reading, not for the theater. The question of course comes up – what, then, of film?
That which constitutes my Macbeth experience, of necessity, the component parts, will differ from that which makes up yours. In addition to the written play itself I’ve tried to observe four cinematic interpretations – those of Polanski, Casson, Gold, and Goold. (Welles and others, including Kurosawa, I leave alone.) For critical guidance I’ve done very little reading in the slatternly intermezzo we know as Theory; my tendency is instead to read more in the auspices of Loftiness, or the High Lofty, examples of that being perhaps Professor Goddard, Professor Van Doren, Professor Bloom, Critic Hazlitt, etc. Intense critical work of the real nuts and bolts, hammer and nails kind – the nonpareil, as the cutthroats Macbeth hired to knock off Banquo and Fleance were not the nonpareil – was of course accomplished by Professor Spurgeon in her Shakespeare’s Imagery, and I try to resist the temptation to go to her too too often. (Clearly this is tongue in cheek. Anyone at all who is doing work on this subject has to pick and choose from among the jillions of critics and scholars who have contributed.)
One could probably spend a lifetime trying to get to all the scholarship in existence about Macbeth – every book, every essay – and not succeed. My own degree of reading is presently stuck in the novice stage. I can’t pretend to be as widely read in Shakespeare himself or in work about him as are, say, the aforementioned Professor Goddard or Scholar Nuttall. (We can report, incidentally, that the latter’s book A New Mimesis contains the golden observation “Shakespeare, who is full of recyclings, never merely repeats himself.”) I could be, as Colin Wilson was with The Outsider, hopelessly out of depth. Be that as it may, from what I have thus far managed I must say it seems the work is considered by critics to contain immortal messages and eternal truths, characters larger than life, and to be dramatic art of the highest possible quality. It is in short veritably a superhuman achievement. (In due course we’ll look at what some writers characteristic of the High Lofty have said about it.) Here I am setting my sights perhaps a little lower, going in a different direction that emphasizes not so much the dialogue or the poetry itself or the play’s themes or psychological insight into people but rather what the characters do; and what they do in large measure is deliver and receive messages, news bulletins and reports which, in the main, recipients do not question the veracity of and which, in the main, contain true and accurate information. Indeed, the words “report” and “news” and their synonyms appear quite often in the play.
In most of these cases the news delivered concerns happenings that are absolutely essential to the narrative engine of the action and the drama.
Derivationist Kibitzing in criticism is widespread and desirable, of course, but what is on the page – literally the words on the paper – is often more largely revealing of the author’s intentions. (Derivationist Kibitzing, or DK, we should note, occurs in every quarter. In what we call Theory, for example, The Tempest becomes a Colonialist Manifesto. The High Lofty, usually despite denials from those who practice(d) it, is essentially Bardolatry On Steroids – Shakespeare is the absolute best at any and everything, period, the end. For example, Professor Goddard actually claims that no actor can possibly convey the meaning of the sentence “This is the door” as it appears in Macbeth. In his introduction to the Pelican edition of the play Professor Harbage writes that Shakespeare at his sharpest can push up against the boundaries of what is expressible, and that “Some of the speeches seem to express the agony of all mankind”. Outrageous, unprovable claims such as these are a traditional hallmark of Loftyhood.) Obviously we all know that Shakespeare’s stage directions as they have come down to us are minimal to non existent (a comparison with Eugene O’Neill’s is always good for a smile), so we may frequently want to look at different productions of the same play to help us gauge perhaps if there is any consensus as to what the meaning or intention was. (Although we should acknowledge that some editions actively edit to make this ‘problem’ a bit easier.) As I say, I’ve studied four versions of Macbeth on DVD, and have done that carefully enough to be fully convinced that my claim above about what the play is at least partially about - which is, again, the delivery of news and reports – is accurate, and also that there is great flexibility for interpretation built in. Professor Bate writes that Romantic idealists felt the plays to be too beautiful on the page to be dirtied up by performances, a view something like that of The Bradster, but I feel that that kind of outlook is quite a bit off the mark, in regard to the cinema, for the following reason: film can illustrate nuances in a way that reading simply cannot. One can be the most profound, insightful reader in the history of the Milky Way Galaxy and still not be able to intellectualize and visualize with more profit than one would get from viewing a few different cinematic adaptations of the play and comparing them against each other and against Shakespeare’s words. Additionally, the cinema provides a visual advantage that live theater cannot (an excellent example of this being Frank Finlay’s portrayal of Iago, which was said to underwhelm in the theater but is absolutely magnificent on film). Now, I understand that the critics of yore didn’t have the cinema in the mix, yet I can’t help but feel that they would have considered it, as they considered the theater, inferior to the study of the text. (Let me call to mind Professor Goddard’s contemptuous remarks about “some obliterating actress” playing Rosalind in As You Like It and why the “imaginative man” always prefers to read the play. Lord! The pseudo-Marxist critical hoosegow, I think, is not the only thing Rosalind’s play needs to be reclaimed from.)
Here are two examples, both from offerings of Macbeth, of the enormous power of the cinema in terms of articulating Shakespeare.
1) In Casson’s 1978 film featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company, the early scenes show one of the three witches broken out in an intense feverish sweat, barely able to walk or speak. She is quite noticeably in this condition; the other two are not. Much later on – most graphically during the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” sequence – McKellen is shown in the same state of heated physical fervor. The visual implication is unmistakable: the same possessing spirit that gripped her body is now gripping his. Whether or not we feel this to be a legitimate interpretation of Shakespeare’s writing is beside the point, which is that it would be extremely unlikely for this impression to be gotten solely from reading.
2) In Jack Gold’s film for the BBC series the sky, in the scene in which Duncan, Banquo and others arrive at
is lit a brilliant and intense orange behind them. The gate of the castle stands opened, and the
bars of it, sharpened at the ends like swords or spikes, are filmed in the
foreground in such a way that they appear to be coming down right on the heads
of Banquo and Duncan. This visual
evocation of danger and betrayal anthropomorphizes the castle in a way I don’t think
reading alone ever could.
My belief is that the best way to study Shakespeare’s comedies and dramas today is to supplement reading, both primary and secondary, with repeated study of the various film presentations of any given play (several different film versions of each of most of the major plays are readily available). That shall be my method in these pieces. We’ll go through the play Macbeth scene by scene – there are twenty eight in all – and analyze how each of our four films presents each scene. In conjunction, we’ll use the text as our main course and the scholarly commentary as our spaghetti sauce.
If there be anyone at all in the cosmos with any interest in what I have to say here, they would likely be either a student of literature, a film buff, or a Shakespeare Phreak. Depending upon one’s orientation, the attitude and approach will vastly differ. A film buff would be perfectly willing to consider Polanski’s film of Macbeth on the same plane as an aesthetically brilliant but intellectually empty movie such as The Thomas Crown Affair; on the same plane as one of Chabrol’s psychologically acute and weird thrillers; and on the same plane as a Hollywood screwball comedy from the 1930s, and every other kind of film we care to name; a hardcore Shakespeare enthusiast would not be so willing. In fact, to them to compare all these as equals would probably be heresy.
If I may briefly insert this as well – there are almost always live theater productions of the play going on somewhere. Even as I write this Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed staging at the Armory has just ended and a Sydney Theater Company production featuring an avant-garde design by Alice Babidge is opening. I reluctantly omit theater from this discussion simply because it’s hard to consult or refer to after the fact of the live performance is over.
If I may be permitted to go back to my statement about Macbeth and what it is at least partially about. Below I present twenty examples from the drama to support my observation and comment briefly.
Act 1, Scene 2 - Here the bloody man delivers a report – and
actually says “He can report” – about Macbeth’s bravery and courage.
A word about this –
seems to be excessively trusting.
Perhaps this is why he is habitually betrayed by people like Cawdor and
Macbeth. It seems a trifle odd to me
that, for instance, he is relying on the contingency of a chance, accidental
meeting with a wounded soldier for information about how his own army is
performing. Wouldn’t the king have an
extensive network of spies and scouts?
Act 1, Scene 2 – Ross arrives to report of Macbeth’s bravery versus
Norway. Again, Duncan
appears to be relying on complete happenstance for this important
information. He doesn’t even recognize
Ross, one of his own thanes!
Act 1, Scene 3 – Here the three witches report to each other. Largely irrelevant.
Act 1, Scene 4 – Here Malcolm brings news to Duncan of Cawdor’s execution. The scene is important because it stresses
consciousness. He mentions his “absolute
trust” in Cawdor – he is about to place the same in Macbeth, with a worse
Act 1, Scene 5 – Macbeth’s letter to Lady Macbeth fills her in on the prophecies of the witches and their subsequent coming true. It’s important to note that the witches’ predictions early on are given full credence while, further on, the importance of their later ones is perhaps not fully appreciated by Macbeth.
Act 1, Scene 5 – The servant brings Lady Macbeth the news that
Duncan will visit that night. Notice that in this brief conversation both
“tidings” and “news” appear, thus strengthening the theme.
Act 1, Scene 7 - “How now! What news?”
Act 2, Scene 2 – Macbeth reports to Lady Macbeth the killing of
Act 3, Scene 1 – Macbeth reveals (to the audience) through his dialogue with the hired murderers that he has reported news of Banquo’s wrongdoings against the murderers to them, the murderers. This is the one place where we might wonder if the news report in question is true or not. It may not be – Banquo does not appear to have been the type for malicious foul play.
Act 3, Scene 4 – The Murderer brings the news of Banquo’s killing and Fleance’s escape to Macbeth.
Act 3, Scene 6 – The unnamed LORD reports to Lennox that Malcolm and Macduff are in
seeking the aid of Edward.
Act 4, Scene 1 – The apparitions deliver predictions which we may consider news by this point in the play, though I acknowledge this characterization might be questioned.
Act 4, Scene 1 – Lennox reports to Macbeth that Macduff has fled to
Act 4, Scene 2 - The messenger arrives to advise Lady Macduff to flee.
Act 4, Scene 3 – Ross brings Macduff the dreadful news.
Act 5, Scene 2 –
Caithness provides Mentieth will
Act 5, Scene 3 – “Bring me no more reports.”
Act 5, Scene 5 - Seyton gives the news of Lady Macbeth’s death.
Act 5, Scene 5 – The messenger reports that Birnam Wood is moving.
Act 5, Scene 8 – Macduff gives the news that he is not of woman born!
Thusly, twenty instances of the motif. This is evidently a world in which delivered messages count for much – or, to be more accurate, at least a play in which they do. It would be well beyond the scope of my knowledge or expertise about medieval
Scotland to state categorically
that “This society functioned in large measure on the backs of messengers” although
such a statement is probably a good guess.
It is also a likely good guess that much more could be learned about this play from an
intensive study of the literature on the psychology of tyrants and dictators
than from wanton, meandering metaphysical speculation about “unseen forces that
shape our lives” and so forth. Granted,
very few people who are interested in imaginative literature (I cling
stubbornly to the term) either as a career or just casually are going to want
to put in the time and effort required to slough through much technical work on
said psychology, but I would make a bet further that wide reading on the life
and regime of, say, Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein will uncover not a few
dispositions to behavior similar to some we witness in Macbeth himself. If there is “universalism” in literature it’s
most likely to be found in an avenue such as this.
Another possible topic: the psychology of ambition, a subject about which there exists an immense amount of literature. George H.W. Bush was once asked why he wanted to be President of the
United States. His answer was “For the honor of it
all”. This seems to me to be exactly the
kind of ambition the Macbeths exhibit, a sort of ambiguous desire for glory –
holding a position just for the sake of holding it, with no higher or more
dignified purpose. Again, I recognize that reading of this sort
is not likely to much interest practicioners of the humanities, and we probably
don’t have enough information from the text of the play to definitively
ascertain the motivation for the Macbeths’ ambition, but it’s pretty clear to
me that the Macbeths’ desire to be king and queen is entirely selfish and quite
possibly entirely shallow and superficial. It almost resembles Kim Kardashian’s
desire for publicity. It would be useful
to know what psychologists who have researched persons with this trait have
With these general remarks in the background I hope I may be granted leeway to now pass on to my proposed scene by scene, film by film analysis of the play.
ACT ONE, SCENE ONE
“I come, Graymalkin.” “Paddock calls.” “Anon.” To a diehard purist the cutting of these lines may represent a cardinal sin; to someone acquainted with, but not totally obsessed by, the play it may or may not even be noticed; and to someone counting this film as their first exposure to Macbeth it obviously won’t matter very much at all. It does, though, signal what will be Polanski’s methodology throughout. He chooses to omit large chunks of Shakespeare’s dialogue and, regrettably, rearranges it and moves it around in spots as well. (In fairness we should that much other filmed Shakespeare does the same.) Here, the first words the witches speak in this scene are “Fair is foul…” etc., which in the scene as Shakespeare wrote it are the last words they say. It’s not an effective choice. The difference between having a character ask the question “When shall we three meet again?” as the leadoff speech on the one hand and having three characters chant a slogan in unison on the other is actually monumental. In the first case we might immediately think things like, Oh, they meet regularly. Oh, their preferred meeting conditions are thunder, lightning and rain and not pleasant beach days that are eighty degrees and sunny. Oh, I wonder why they meet anyway, and so on. Hearing them chant a song doesn’t produce this kind of reaction. Shakespeare’s original order is much more effective.
That said, the opening shots of a beach locale changing colors – first red, then brownish-gray, then blue, with seagulls singing overhead, establish the undeniable visual beauty of the film that Polanksi and his cinematographer Gil Taylor maintain throughout. The three weird ones walk into the frame from the left, pushing a little cart along in the sand. They stop, kneel, dig in the sand, and bury a severed human hand with a dagger positioned in it, as well as a noose, in the cool wet earth.. They quickly make a little grave out of this, pouring potions over it and spitting. The few lines of dialogue are spoken by only two; the youngest, most “attractive” one doesn’t speak at all (she is the one who later flashes her female parts at Macbeth and Banquo after the first prophecies are delivered). Here they speak calmly, conversationally, almost casually, something they do not do in the other three films. The wheels of their cart squeak as they go off down the shoreline, and then the screen goes blank as the credits begin to roll against the background noise of the battle where Macbeth unseams Macdonwald.
It isn’t easy for me to assess whether or not this clip establishes the mood Shakespeare had in mind for this opening scene. (Also, we must never forget the personal circumstances under which Polanski was making this film.) I might point out that Professor Goddard, in The Meaning of Shakespeare, attempts to establish a direct link between the Three Witches and Lady Macbeth, an idea that Polanksi’s visuals do nothing to advance. In Shakespeare Professor Van Doren states that darkness – or Darkness – prevails in Macbeth’s universe because the witches have willed it to. In the context of the little twist Polanski throws in as the last scene of his film this observation might be worth exploring. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human Professor Bloom includes a few remarks about how the very cosmos is all but identical with the Weird Sisters. Such an idea might be suggested by the grotesque items Polanski has his witches bury.
A final observation on this section – Polanski is a strong filmmaker with a very recognizable style, much like Kubrick or Antonioni. Therefore a serious student is going to want to refer not only to Shakespeare but also to earlier films of this director such as Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby for reference.
Casson’s 1978 film of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s interpretation is done in a theater-in-the-round; the two opening shots establish and define the boundaries of the playing space first with an overhead shot and then with a ground level shot as the cast members walk onto the stage and sit in a circle. The camera then pans the faces of the actors in a circular arc. A church organ plays the identical theme it will play later at Macbeth’s coronation. All this introduces a reflexitivity that Shakespeare didn’t put into the work. It’s a little bit, though not quite exactly, like the opening of The Taming of the Shrew.
Casson’s staging of the scene is deeply interesting. The three witches emerge from the circle and group together. One seems to be limping, and she sweats with intense fever (this is the same kind of feverish look McKellen is swathed in from the time of the rituals they perform on him in Act 4, Scene 1, on till the end of the production. – the implication is that the witches put this same spell that is making her sweat into him with their rites). The witches tremble and chant unintelligibly. While this is going on we see Macduff (who at this point is unknown to us as Macduff) leading Duncan to an area where he begins to kneel and pray so that we simultaneously see the witches buzzing and humming and Duncan praying.
kneels and prays with his sons; Macduff, however, doesn’t – he stands, with his
arms folded, watching. Duncan wears a huge cross around his neck, so
we might assume he is engaging in Christian prayer. Thus we are shown Duncan’s Christianity against the witches’
paganism, clashing like two cymbals. This
point is further stressed in later scenes with rituals and dolls.
Two of the witches speak calmly; the feverish one wails loudly, almost appearing to be in pain. Thunder and lightning ripple.
Recapping: the master strokes here are the fever and the referencing of Christianity via
Duncan’s cross necklace
and the church music on the soundtrack
Jack Gold’s interpretation, done for the BBC Shakespeare series in the 1980s, is in some ways very traditional and conventional but quite bold and original in others; the opening scene of the play, with the witches, falls into the first category. It is complete vanilla, total decaf. The boring credit sequence does, however, do one thing, and that is establish the powerful soundtrack. All four films we examine here make use of commentative music, but in this film it is truly noteworthy.
Rupert Goold’s 2009 film is even more “movie like” than Polanki’s in that it immediately establishes a strong mise-en-scene in the Cahiers du Cinema sense of the term. Like Polanski, Goold also cuts Shakespeare’s dialogue and moves it around and, again like Polanski but in a more extreme way, he does so right off the bat, in the first scene, so that the “What bloody man is that?” scene comes first. Here it’s done for the sake of modernity – the witches appear as nurses in a MASH unit (later they appear as kitchen help in
participating in the preparation of meals), handling modern medical equipment,
but they are anything but nurserly. In
fact, they seem quite menacing.
The film opens not with them but with a bloody hand opening and closing, then a quick cut to what looks like some stock war footage of canons and soldiers running in fields. Next, in the same grainy black and white, we see Macbeth and Banquo in the woods, making their way back from the battle. The three witches are dressed as nuns and, as we said, working as nurses upon the captain. Their aprons are splattered with blood.
The body of the bloody captain convulses on the stretcher. The narrow tunnel passageway, a minute before buzzing with people and activity, becomes eerily empty. The captain’s heartbeat stops; he dies. The first sister asks angrily when they should meet again, roaring the words. When the third sister says “There to meet with…” she looks directly into the camera with a sinister glare, which is only appropriate since in the next moment she pulls the dead sergeant’s heart out of his chest with her bare hand.
Each viewer has to decide for themselves to what degree they can accept this experimentalism. My own inclination is to welcome this sort of risk taking, even if it causes small absurdities. (An example – “Upon the heath”, yet, they meet with him not on any heath but in an empty banquet room.) (Additionally, in this case flipping the order of the first two scenes around seems to matter in a way it does not in, for example, Kenneth Branagh’s 1988 production of Twelfth Night for the Thames Shakespeare Collection.)
Finally, the strategy lends an interesting element to the sisters in the sense that it has them participating in dual realms, both in the real world action of the play (as nurses) and in their traditional role as supernatural predators.
The number of debates and arguments about the three witches is infinite, and many of them down through the centuries have been of an essentially trivial nature; it does seem to be a no brainer that the Hecate scenes are by Middleton, or at least by someone other than Shakespeare; however I would like to very briefly mention two views from the ranks of the High Lofty as food for thought and then make my own short observation on this scene.
In Shakespeare Professor Van Doren wrote “Darkness prevails because the witches, whom Banquo calls its instruments, have willed to produce it. But Macbeth is its instrument too, as well as its victim. And the weird sisters no less than he are instruments of an evil that employs them both and has roots running farther into darkness than the mind can guess.” Employs them for what purpose? To kill
Is it that evil employs the sisters to kill Duncan and they subcontract the job out to
Macbeth? Or is it more like evil just
wishes to produce random general mayhem with no specific targets in mind? What is this “evil”, anyway – what kind of
ontological status does it have? What
kind of existent is it?
Critic Hazlitt wrote of the difference between what he took to be Lady Macbeth’s eagerness and anticipation and the witches, who are “…who are equally instrumental in urging Macbeth to his fate for the mere love of mischief, and from a disinterested delight in deformity and cruelty. They are hags of mischief, obscene panders to iniquity, malicious from their impotence of enjoyment, enamoured of destruction, because they are themselves unreal, abortive half-existences – who become sublime from their exemption from all human sympathies and contempt for all human affairs, as Lady Macbeth does from the force of her passion!” We can let this quasi hysterical passage stand alone and speak for itself without a lot of comment, but I find it hard to refrain from remarking on the classification of Lady Macbeth as sublime, and when we get to the appropriate scenes I would like to revisit this as well as A.C.’s discussion of the character of the lady.
Lastly I beg your indulgence to briefly observe that some critics, for example Henry Cunningham (editor of the 1912 edition of the Arden Shakespeare) thought this scene to be spurious on the grounds that it contributes nothing to the drama; others, for example L.C. Knights, opined that this scene establishes a major theme of the play, which in his view is “the reversal of values”.